10/10 Shonen Knife: Rock Animals

Artist: Shonen Knife

Album: Rock Animals

Label: Virgin Records US

Key Tracks: “Concrete Animals”, “Catnip Dream”, “Cobra Versus Mongoose”, “Brown Mushrooms”

Release Date: January 25, 1994

Rating: 10/10

I didn’t know a lot about Shonen Knife the first time I heard them – and this makes sense for a couple of reasons.

a)      I was about seven years old on vacation, and heard them on a cassette tape my father was playing in our family’s hotel room

b)      It was 1999, and the Osaka trio’s peak commercial success had been about half a decade before, around the release of Rock Animals

Reasons aside, the songs stuck with me. And not because they were “cute” or because they were “quirky” but because the songs felt decidedly true. “Froot Loop Dreams” felt honest and real, even to a seven year old who would rather pick the marshmallows out of Count Chocola than chow down on the cereal harked by the song’s main character – Toucan Sam. These girls knew what they wanted to sing, and if that meant choco bars (and the deep desire to subsist solely on them), summertime laziness, or even the protagonist of the 1948 children’s book My Father’s Dragon.

Rock Animals is a unique creature for many reasons, and not even just because the album artwork is admittedly more commercial than anything else that graced the covers of the band’s previous releases. Everything about this album is more commercial – and for a reason – it was released on Virgin Records in the United States only a couple of years after Shonen Knife toured the UK with Nirvana.

The Nirvana.

As in Kurt Cobain on the tour right before the release of Nevermind, the album that would change everything for everyone in 1991. The music video for “Tomato Head” even face the critique of Beavis and Butthead in America, as well as regular rotation on MTV in the early nineties.

The legendary Thurston Moore even supplies guitar riffs on the album’s third track, “Butterfly Boy”. Sure, the English feels like it is pretty phonetic, and maybe not even in quite the same endearing way it was on earlier recordings, like 721 or Pretty Litte Baka Guy.

Rock Animals is a turning point in many ways for the group. This was their big break in America, and their following albums frankly did not reach the same kinds of audiences that this particular album did.

Regardless of the kind of complaining one could do about the album, gems like “Concrete Animals” stand out as some of the finest tunes in Shonen Knife’s discography.

Generally speaking,

Every park has them

Commonly they are at the sandbox

Occasionally they are vandalized by someone

They are painted many colors

Elephant, Raccoon, Tiger

What kind of lyrics are more punk rock than that? Yamano might as well have been David Byrne.

There is something so poignant and lonely about some of the snippets of Yamano’s words. Something lost. Something unique. Something that isn’t taken too seriously but is very much there.

They are too big to carry back home

They are too heavy for me to move

After the sun sets they have a secret party

Nobody knows, they dance together

 

 

 

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10/10 Badly Drawn Boy: Have You Fed the Fish?

Artist: Badly Drawn Boy

Label: ArtistDirect

Key Tracks: “40 Days, 40 Fights”, “What Is It Now?”, “You Were Right”, “Coming Into Land”

Release Date: November 5, 2002

Rating: 10/10

Maybe I think this album is beautiful because it arrived in my life at just the right time. It’s shocking when I read the mediocre reviews it received when it was released a decade ago. Songs like “40 Days, 40 Fights” and “What Is It Now?” are classics to me, songs that described larger themes of life and loss, yet somehow provided the perfect sonic background for a second grader dealing with issues like classmates who poked fun at my mismatched wardrobe.

Have You Fed the Fish? is sort-of a concept album, or at least there are a couple reoccurring themes. Sure, the themes are a bit oblique, and occasionally, if you weren’t tuned into to the emotional playing field that Damon Gough is playing with, they might even seem a little overbearing. The themes: the things you need, the fear of what is “now”, lifelong love, and the necessity of detail.

Sure, the album starts out with an audio clip, one that sounds like it is being recorded on a  commercial air flight – and instead of seeming saccharin and overbearing, Gough manages to come off as perfectly charming. Sure, the clip mentions Badly Drawn Boy, and Gough does name drop. But you’ve got to understand – he probably recorded this after writing the slew of excellent songs on the album. And if he was a little full of himself after penning “Imaginary Lines” and “All Possibilities”, reality is the only thing to blame.

Sometimes I need your body next to mine
I could draw us an imaginary line, i’m
Just don’t breath, I don’t need your allergies
I am falling out of bed not out of love, love

Then Gough has to get all breath-taking when he sighs:

I know you’ll understand…

Cooing it in the self-assured way that only someone who knew so well that you never, never would.

There is something gorgeous about the Sergeant-Pepper-esque way that the album slide into itself. Short, sweet numbers, like the fourteenth track on the record “What Is It Now?” effortlessly fall out of the preceding number, in this case the melancholy “Tickets To What You Need”.

And the album’s make up isn’t the only thing that pays homage to the Late Great Beatles. “You Were Right”:


I remember doing nothing on the night Sinatra died
And the night Jeff Buckley died
And the night Kurt Cobain died
And the night John Lennon died
I remember I stayed up to watch the news with everyone
And that was a lot of nights
And that was a lot of lives
Who lost the tickets to what they need?

By the end of that track, Gough hits home the entirety of the album in one line when he mutters

And songs are never quite the answer
Just a soundtrack to a life
That is over all too soon
Helps to turn the days to night
While I was wrong and you were right

Making the following eight tracks an study in the potential beauty of a pointless endeavor.